The economy that Henry VII inherited after the Battle of Bosworth was still recovering from both the impact of the Black Death, which had resulted in chronic population decline, and the War of the Roses. England’s economy was primarily based on agriculture and common labourers did much of the work. Any major population decline – be it through plague or war (or a combination of both) – would have hit agriculture hard and therefore the economy. When Henry VII became king in 1485, the population was slowly recovering but the recovery was delicate enough to suffer from bad harvests and outbreaks of plague.
One aspect of agriculture that developed in the reign of Henry VII was enclosure. This was where land was fenced-off and common rights over land were abolished. After enclosure, the owner of that land could do with it as he pleased. For some, this meant that selective breeding of animals could be tried, for others a more concerted effort at growing crops to be sold at market on a more professional basis than before. The previously used open-field system did not give itself up for fencing off and production could be seen as small-scale. The use of enclosure was the start of a more scientific move in agriculture – though the more important advances were some years off. Those who could not prove the legal ownership of land faced eviction but while enclosure meant that some lost out, others did not as they started a trend to feed what was to become a steadily growing population.
John Hales, an enclosure commissioner in the reign of Edward IV, stated quite clearly in 1548, some years before Henry VII, that some land had been enclosed illegally but that where enclosure had been done legally, its benefits outweighed its problems. The move to enclosure of land continued in the reign of Henry VII. Henry was personally petitioned over enclosure, as was Parliament, such were the issues surrounding it and the likes of Thomas More wrote about the subject. One popular rhyme from the time was:
“The site is bound that should be free,
The right is holden from the commonalty,
Our commons that at lammas* open should be cast,
They be closed in and hedged full fast."
* = lammas was a festival when loaves made from the first ripe corn were consecrated.
However, was enclosure really such an issue in the reign of Henry VII? Clearly for the families that were evicted, the answer would be ‘yes’. But research does show that enclosure was never as widespread as was first thought. Enclosure was most common in the Midlands but only 3% of land there was ever enclosed in Henry’s reign. Enclosure did not just start post-1485. The worst excesses in legal terms were before the reign of Henry and done against a background of the dislocation caused by the War of the Roses. Also the number of families evicted has probably been exaggerated as many farmers had turned to pasture farming after the Black Death, as they could not get the necessary labour for farming arable crops. The number of people actually employed on the land was not large by 1485, so the impact of enclosure was not as great as might have been imagined. The negative impression left by enclosure probably came about as a result of it being muddled with engrossing. The engrossing of farms was where several farms were joined together to make one more profitable unit and this did lead to families being evicted – but it was not enclosure.
Parliament did introduce two laws, both in 1489 that can be seen as being anti-enclosure. One was specifically for the Isle of Wight while the other was a more general piece of legislation. However, the act for the Isle of Wight was an attempt to stop depopulation of what was seen as a vital strategic area. It was believed that enclosure was causing depopulation and that the Isle of Wight would be incapable of defending itself. The second law addressed the belief that enclosure might result in a breakdown of law and order and forbade any destruction of a house with at least twenty acres of land. The act did not contain the word ‘enclosure’ in it and it proved to be difficult to enforce.